On the Bus with Tom Wolfe

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Around 1980, when I was in high school, a progressive-minded English teacher came upon me reading a book about hallucinogens in the library during study hall. Instead of reporting me to the DEA, he kindly gave me a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (That, Betsy DeVos, is what we call an educator.)

KA-POW, ZOWIE! Heeeeewack!!! as someone once wrote.

I became an immediate acolyte of Tom Wolfe, and over the next five or six years devoured almost everything he had written to that point:  The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House GangThe Right StuffRadical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Painted Word, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, In Our Time, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Purple Decades.

Wolfe and Hunter Thompson (whom I had discovered a bit earlier, in junior high, thanks to “Doonesbury”) were my literary heroes, along with Kesey—although he carried an asterisk, as there was really only that one great book, plus his role as lead character in another—and Kerouac, who not coincidentally gave us Dean Moriarty, whose real life alter ego Neal Cassady was Kesey’s scene-stealing co-star in Electric Kool-Aid! (Synchronicity!!!!! Intersubjectivity!!!!!).

I know it all sounds a bit juvenile and clichéd now—particularly Kerouac, and Hunter, even as his great political and sociological reportage has been overshadowed by the legend of his personal excesses. (Would that he were alive today to eviscerate a certain orange-toned shitbag.) But to a provincial teenager with romantic visions, it was intoxicating to say the least. Apparently, millions of other boys of my generation agreed.

And I do mean “boys.” Hunter especially had massive appeal to a certain breed of literary-minded young men, but all of the so-called New Journalism was a pretty male phenomenon—with apologies to Joan Didion—reflective of the endemic sexism of the day. I’m not sure much has changed.

But Tom Wolfe towered over them all. I loved his maximalist style, his joyous, unbridled indulgence, his sheer Americanness—the polar opposite of the painfully stilted, faux European style that characterized critically correct capital L Literature. It was like the New Wave kicking down the doors of the stodgy form the French called the “cinema of quality.”

For almost forty years he has been my favorite author.

As many before me have noted, Wolfe’s genius was that he married an unparalleled eye—and ear—for biting, incisive social commentary with the most pyrotechnically entertaining prose style seen in American letters in the 20thcentury.

It goes without saying that Wolfe was a virtuoso with words—like a Hendrix, a Coltrane, a Buddy Powell—a writer who practically reinvented the entire non-fiction form. But that was only the start. Compounding his brilliance, he deployed that gargantuan talent in the service of some of the most insightful sociological analysis and spot-on puncturing of American foibles ever put to paper. He had all the wit of Gore Vidal (and more) without the simpering self-regard and highfalutin pretensions, and the gimlet eye of H.L. Mencken but without the disturbing Teutonic sympathies. I know that his own avowed models were Balzac, Zola, and Dickens, whom he consciously emulated, but for my money, the best comparison is Mark Twain. As Frank Rich wrote (fittingly, in the pages of New York magazine, from which Wolfe sprung):

It is really hard to overestimate the revolution Wolfe brought to journalism. By marrying a glorious literary style and hard-driving narrative to meticulous, indefatigable reporting, he rehabilitated the very notion of print journalism in the 1960s when it was deadly gray and, like much of American culture, having difficulty fending off the behemoth of television. It’s impossible to imagine many of our best nonfiction writers, from Hunter S. Thompson to Michael Lewis, without his having paved the way.

BONFIRE OVER BAGHDAD

When I was in Iraq in 1991, my parachute infantry regiment had marched to an absolutely desolate, godforsaken swatch of enemy territory south of Jalibah airfield when the US advance was halted by the cease fire. We stopped in place and sat there for the next month while awaiting further orders—what we hoped would be redeployment back to the United States—while watching in frustration as what remained of the Republican Guard rolled back toward Baghdad, putting down the Iraqi resistance along the way, sowing the seeds for a second war that would commence a dozen years later.

This is not an argument that Desert Storm was prematurely halted, though it might be the beginning of an argument that Desert Storm was the start of the bloody, self-destructive crusade in which we are still engaged. But that’s a topic for another day.

During that month we sat near Jalibah, boredom was a far deadlier enemy than the Iraqis had been. We were all desperate for any kind of reading material at all, but in those pre-Internet days, when it took two weeks for a letter to arrive from the States, pickings were slim. We got a couple of “care packages” of books, most of which were junk. But in one of those boxes I managed to find a paperback copy of Bonfire of the Vanities.

O happy day!

I devoured it cover to cover, and as soon as I finished, started reading it all over again from page one.

I’d read it before, when it first came out in 1987, when I was stationed in Germany, and I loved it. Everything that was terrific about Wolfe’s non-fiction style had been seamlessly transferred to fiction, which is no mean feat. Like most readers, save New Yorkers (and among New Yorkers, that even more minuscule subset of a certain kind of Upper East Sider and Wall Streeter), it portrayed a world that was utterly alien to me….and even more so for having spent most of the late Eighties out of the country, in the decidedly un-Sherman McCoy-like world of a GI in the US Army Europe sitting astride the Fulda Gap. But that was the genius of Tom Wolfe: he could take you the reader into any world he wanted and make it come alive and feel absolutely real.

There was some symmetry in reading it again in the pitiless deserts of Iraq in ‘91, securing American access to Middle Eastern oil, a fitting capstone to the rapacious Eighties ethos of Gordon Geckoite “greed is good.”

INFORMATION COMPULSION

Five years later, in 1996, Wolfe would publish a little-remembered novella called “Ambush at Fort Bragg”— perhaps one of the few things he ever penned that can rightly be called “little-remembered.” It was his first piece of fiction after Bonfire, and like it, was serialized in Rolling Stone, albeit in two parts rather than 27. (To my knowledge it was never printed anywhere else, and survives only as an audiobook read by Edward Norton.)

Clearly showing the lingering preoccupations of the towering novel that preceded it, the novella is largely a screed about the media, but also co-mingles pieces of the ill-fated 1993 Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu—most memorably told in Mark Bowden’s classic Black Hawk Down—with a horrific 1995 peacetime incident at Ft. Bragg, NC in which a deranged, M16-wielding paratrooper opened fire on a physical training formation, killing one and wounding 18 others. (The shooting took place in the football stadium that my old office overlooked on Ardennes Street, though I had been gone from Bragg for four years by that time.) It was the first time Wolfe had written anything that touched on a world I knew personally and intimately, apart from his dead-on dissection of military family life in The Right Stuff. There were things I thought he got wrong, but also things he got quite right.

Wolfe talked often of his theory of “Information Compulsion,” which rightly held that people love to talk about their passions, and that a savvy journalist can accomplish most of his or her work simply by shutting up and listening. Seems obvious, but it’s easier said than done, as it requires the shedding of ego and the suppression of the powerful and very natural human urge to flaunt one’s knowledge, even when playing dumb is the smart move.

But Wolfe was a master of the technique, with his deliberate “Man from Mars” approach to reportage. Like many of his turns of phrase, Information Compulsion was—once one grasped it—forehead-smackingly obvious in its simplicity and patent correctness. Therein lies its genius.

Moreover, once the information was in hand, Wolfe had an uncanny ability to digest, assess, and crystalize it with unmatched precision and panache—a separate skillset from its mere collection. Time after time he stepped into one highly cloistered subculture after another—acid freaks, custom car enthusiasts, military pilots, surfers, architects—and emerged with blazing insights that immediately zeroed in on the most fundamental and emblematic aspects of that given world and brilliantly conveyed them to the reader.

In Electric Kool-Aid—in some quarters probably still his most important book—Wolfe memorably divided the characters into those who were “on the bus”’—that is, hip to the lysergic experience and the movement Kesey was leading—and those who were not. In discussing the book later, he made it very clear that he was never “on the bus”….that is, he never pretended to be cool, or hip, or locked into the Merry Prankster ethos, a calculation he believed would have been a serious misstep with a group of people collectively possessed of a finely honed, pharmaceutically-aided bullshit detector. Had he tried to blend in rather than being willing to standing out as the square reporter, he could never have written the book. (At least not that book.)

Wolfe of course lived the “Man from Mars” approach in his own life, with the famous white suits and dandyish style that instantly announced his deliberate secession from the dull mass of the rest of humanity. In an era—the Sixties—when outrageous fashion was the norm (to the point that it disappeared up its own ass), Wolfe once again outflanked the competition, noting that it was far more eye-catching to adopt an ordinary, bourgeois form like the suit and take in a just slightly eccentric direction, than to appear in, say, a feather boa, Viking helmet, and trousers made of pork chops.

GET ME BRUCE WILLIS

Aside from Bonfire, I was never that taken with his fiction, but Bonfire alone is enough to put him in the pantheon. No doubt that was what galled his “three stooges,” as he called his critics Updike, Mailer, and Irving, who were surely peeved to see a peer (and rival) leap effortlessly from a stellar career in non-fiction to such an eye-popping critical and commercial triumph on his first foray into long form fiction. (So much so that they had to complain about it in print—an unseemly look on a legend.) Who can really blame them, though? They would have been less than human if they were not envious. And again, even as he struck back (in an essay in included in his 2001 collection Hooking Up), the reliably amiable Mr. Wolfe retained the upper hand by cheerfully copping to his own investment in his reputation and legacy rather than pretending to be too cool for school.

Bonfire also holds the distinction of being a great book that inspired another great book, The Devil’s Candy, then-Wall Street Journal film critic Julie Salamon’s scabrous account of the (un)making of the 1990 film adaptation, an epic flop featuring wild miscasting of all three leads, including Bruce Willis (who still thought he was in “Moonlighting”) in a role written for an Englishman, and Tom Hanks (one of our greatest actors, but don’t ask Jimmy Stewart to play a jerk); the continuity nightmare of Melanie Griffith’s mid-production breast enlargement; some seriously ill-advised voiceover; and above all, the decision to discard Wolfe’s scalpel of in favor of a saccharine Hollywood sentimentality that demanded that the hero be “likable”—hence Mr. Hanks—in the process contaminating the entire DNA of the story. (Attention Hollywood: a remake is in order.)

More generally, the movie seemed doomed from the start by the mismatch of the material and director Brian DePalma. That film needed the touch of someone like Mike Nichols, with a script by Buck Henry, or Paddy Chayefsky, or Terry Southern. (Luckily, DePalma was at least talked out of his idea to drop a bucket of pig’s blood on Kim Cattrall.)

The Devil’s Candy captures that slow-motion trainwreck in all its inexorable glory. It is to DePalma’s credit that he allowed that book to be published at all. Thinking of it now, however, I am much more forgiving than I was back then, understanding how easy it is—with just a few missteps—to screw up a movie.

(If you really want to read a postmortem of a flop, and one concerning a director without DePalma’s self-awareness, read the unintentionally hilarious The Man Who Heard Voices.)

By contrast, Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff  (1983) is a terrific film, and all the more incredible for having tackled a book that might at first seem unfilmable. It’s somehow fitting that two of Tom Wolfe’s best-known books resulted in movies at opposite ends of the qualitative spectrum.

Wolfe, with characteristic wisdom, knew enough to stay away from adaptations of his work, the better to collect hosannas when they were triumphs and bask in sympathy when they were botched.

The other noteworthy cinematic appearance of Tom Wolfe—off screen, anyway—is in The Player (1992), when Tim Robbins’s anti-hero studio exec offers to bid a million dollars, sight unseen, on a new book by Wolfe. His deputy—and girlfriend—played by Cynthia Stevenson, asks Robbins’s character why he is willing to pay so much, to which he replies, reverently, “It’s Tom Wolfe,” his voice dripping with contempt that anyone would not bow down at the very mention of the great author’s name.

I never could tell if Altman was taking a shot at Wolfe, or at the lemming-like mentality of Hollywood. (Maybe both.)

In any case, ironically, The Player bluntly dramatizes the dumbass studio mentality that led to a bomb like Bonfire, right down to the requisite happy ending and the casting of Bruce Willis as the hero of any American studio movie released between 1988 and 1994.

PAGING DR. HOWARD, DR. FINE, DR. HOWARD

I was lucky enough to see Tom Wolfe speak in person, only once, somewhere on the Upper West Side like Symphony Space, I think, in the ‘00s if I’m not mistaken. He was exactly as advertised and as I’d always imagined: razor sharp, funny, reflective, charming, eloquent, insightful, and somehow simultaneously pretentious and self-effacing. (Which either meant he was not pretentious at all, or that the self-effacing part was a very convincing act. But it didn’t seem that way. He seemed like a man fully at peace with who he was, both the good and the bad. A man in full, if you will.)

During the Q&A an audience member asked where he got his socks, and Wolfe genially declined to give away his secrets.

In some ways I am saddened that Tom Wolfe is not with us to chronicle the absurdities of the current political moment and lacerate those who have inflicted them upon us, but I am also weirdly glad that he is not forced to waste his time on a cretin like the current occupant of the Oval Office. Wolfe belongs too much to an earlier era of political nightmares, even if he never explicitly wrote about them himself.

In 1980, in the wake of Nixon’s downfall (but before the rise of Reagan), Wolfe told Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone that “the real lesson of Watergate was, what a stable country! Here you’ve got the president forced out of office, and yet the tanks don’t roll, the junta is never formed.” Others have made similar observations, but typically, few with Wolfe’s style. It was a remark characteristic of his genteel conservatism—may that extinct species also rest in peace.

Even though in that same interview he confessed to having no interest in politics as subject matter, I do wonder what he would make of our current situation, and whether that optimism of his still held in his twilight. Per above, I think Dr. Thompson would have been better suited to sink his chompers into Benito Cheetoh (even though it was Wolfe’s opinion that Thompson’s talents, too, were wasted on politics).

Alas, we will never know. One might also argue that in his final decades he lost a step, plugged into the zeitgeist-wise. But no matter. Grading on a curve, Wolfe’s B+ material would still be far and away almost any author’s masterpiece.

Who today can hold a candle to him for sheer linguistic brilliance? David Foster Wallace is the too-obvious candidate who immediately comes to mind, his indictment in the #MeToo movement notwithstanding. But I’ll confess that I could never get through any of his books. Tom Wolfe, by contrast, was the most eminently readable literary giant I can think of….every new piece, of any length, a fantastically gobble-able feast that I delighted in gorging myself upon. (With DFW disqualified for being a creepy stalker and not that much fun to read, my vote goes to Dave Eggers for style and to Fran Lebowitz for social commentary, with honorable mention to the late Christopher Hitchens for capacity to infuriate and poke eyes. Yes, it takes three writers to replace Tom Wolfe, and even then I don’t think the math adds up.)

So in summary, I’ll wager—and this does not require great courage—that when the history of postwar American literature is written, Tom Wolfe will loom large. It is already impossible to consider oneself a literate American without at least a passing knowledge of his most seminal books and essays, while his influence on our lexicon is so vast as to be taken for granted. (A nice survey of Wolfe’s astounding array of contributions to the English language, neologism-wise—from radical chic to the right stuff to the Me Decade, push the envelope, Master of the Universe, and beyond—can be found here). How many artists are at once groundbreaking sui generis innovators, yet also so absolutely pleasurable to partake of, without an iota of eat-your-vegetables critical insistence that you should like it? (For my taste: Wolfe, the Beatles, Seinfeld…..)

Everyone has their heroes whose passing leaves a hole in our collective being, and one of mine left a gaping chasm when he shuffled off this mortal coil this week.

Rest in peace, Tom. When comes such another?

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Photo: https://www.greatertalent.com/speaker/tomwolfe/

 

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